Top novelist Jodi Picoult on learning to write again after COVID

Jodi Picoult is the queen of ethical fiction. Her books have tackled controversial issues ranging from organ donation to teenage suicide, sexual abuse to domestic violence and school shootings.

The American author has never feared tackling hard hitting subjects head on. Her 2004 novel My Sister’s Keeper – about a 13-year-old girl who fights back when told to donate a kidney to her cancer-suffering sister – skyrocketed to fame and spawned a movie adaptation starring Cameron Diaz.

But nothing could have prepared her for a global pandemic that meant she wouldn’t leave her home, set in 11 acres in New Hampshire, for 16 months, because she has severe asthma.

“My lungs aren’t good on a good day. I have trouble breathing. I know what my triggers are but I didn’t think a disease which turns your lungs to ground glass was something my lungs were going to do well with,” Ms Picoult, 55, explains over Zoom from her office, a large Black Lives Matter sticker affixed to her bookcase in the background.

She and her husband, college sweetheart Tim Van Leer, an antiques dealer, stayed in the house on their own, while two of their three grown-up children and their partners moved into their lake house nearby.

Some US states found asthma a reason to get a vaccine early. Ms Picoult’s did not, she explains. The worst thing about lockdown was that the award-winning author of 27 novels, with 40 million copies sold worldwide, became unable to read – or write.

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“I’d be here sobbing at my desk. I’m not a person who suffers from depression but I was really out of it at the beginning. I couldn’t read. And forget writing. I couldn’t stay focused enough to even look at a page. It took me a long time to get back into reading and to figure out how to be a writer again.”

It took months to regroup. But the result was her new novel, Wish You Were Here, set against the COVID background. The rights have been snapped up by Netflix with a view to a movie.

Her novel centres on a 29-year-old art specialist in New York, who goes on holiday to the Galapagos without her young surgeon boyfriend, who has had to remain behind because of the emerging COVID crisis.

So she goes alone, only for the islands – and the world – to shut down as she arrives. “It’s a story about what happens when you are in paradise and the rest of the world has gone to hell in a handbasket,” Ms Picoult explains.

Writing the book was a kind of therapy for her, even though she’d already finished her next book and a COVID fictional story hadn’t even been commissioned.

“As a writer, I was thinking, how are we going to tell the story of the pandemic? I myself had quite a sea change. The only time I had left [the house] was to go hiking every day by myself in the woods, or with a bunch of friends 6ft apart. I didn’t go into stores or anything and I was really scared. I needed to process what was happening to me in 2020.”

The idea was sparked by a story she’d heard about a Japanese tourist who had become stranded in Machu Picchu when the country closed down. “He became part of a community, taught martial arts to the kids and eventually the community petitioned the government to open up the historic site so he could finally see what he’d come to see.”

Ms Picoult also traced a young Scot who was stranded on the Galapagos, and interviewed him and the families he interacted with while coronavirus did its worst globally. She interviewed doctors, nurses and medical professionals too, particularly young medics, as well as 40 people who had been on ventilators and survived.

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“Interestingly, survivors and first responders all came from the same place, which was ‘Please tell our story and let people know what it was like’, because there are so many people in America who think this is a hoax, the flu, no big deal.”

What does she want readers to take away from the book?
“They should be asking certain questions. The first one is, what did you lose? Because everyone lost something. It could have been a graduation, a vacation, a wedding, a job, a person, but we all lost something. The second question is, what did you learn? When you push pause, you find some uncomfortable truths.

“I remember thinking that the measures of success I’d always thought equated to things like a degree, a job, money, a title, those things really didn’t matter. The reality was that the success was measured in: Am I healthy? Do I have food? Do I have a place to live? Can I sit next to my loved one when they’re really sick?”

She’s been vaccinated and, through social media, has urged others to do the same, but has received hate mail because of it, she reveals.

“America is a nightmare right now. We have a lot of selfish people here who are not getting vaccinated. We are at a stage where we do have protection but still have to assess our level of risk management.”

She blames the Trump administration for the lack of vaccine take-up in the US. “It was framed as a political issue and a matter of personal freedom, when in reality all those founding fathers that these right-wing anti-vaxxers keep quoting were among the first to support inoculation against smallpox.

“It’s stupidity, looking at the wrong sources, a mistrust of science and fact, those were all seeds that were sown during the last presidency, unfortunately. And once you open that Pandora’s box, it’s very hard to close it.”

The pandemic has made her refocus her priorities, she agrees. High points that once would have been work-related – the debut of a musical she has helped adapt (Between The Lines, rescheduled from April 2020 to premiere in New York in June 2022, and a musical adaptation of The Book Thief opening in Bolton next year) – are now vying for space with family time.

“I’m very aware of the time I spend and how I spend it. I have a lot of irons in the fire, a jam-packed year and I’m trying to make sure that I leave time for me and my family and that I’m not prioritising work and other people over seeing my family,” she says.

“I’m also much more cognisant of checking in with my parents and my son on the west coast, making sure I don’t postpone a visit because of a work thing. Because who knows when we’re going to shut down again? I don’t want to be in a position when I don’t see them for two years.”

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Ms Picoult herself had a blissfully normal childhood. She was born on Long Island, New York. Her mother was a nursery schoolteacher while her father worked on Wall Street. After studying English and creative writing at Princeton University, she had a succession of jobs – in finance, editing textbooks, teaching and writing advertising copy – while writing in her spare time.

She received hundreds of rejections, finally finding an agent. But her books were a slow burn, receiving attention by word of mouth rather than advertising.

She remains excited about the world opening up, because of her change in perspective, she agrees. “I take nothing for granted now.”

Wish You Were Here by Jodi Picoult is published by Hodder & Stoughton, available now.

Have you read any of Jodi Picoult’s books? What are you reading right now? Let us know in the comments section below.

– With PA

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Written by Hannah Stephenson

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